Indians try to rebuild center

Funding: Loss of grants has cut programming to the quick, but the Baltimore group's board is working to bring about a reversal of fortune.

April 16, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In 1999, the Baltimore American Indian Center seemed to be flourishing. With an energetic executive director and a healthy supply of federal grant money, supporters were hoping to raise even more by booking their annual powwow at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Three years later, the center's board is struggling to rebuild it.

Gone are federal grants that paid for alcohol counseling and job training. There hasn't been enough money to hire an executive director for a year. Its programs have shrunken to a day care center and a cultural class in other buildings, while the center at 113 S. Broadway is shut afternoons and evenings.

The center's board of directors - many of them members of the Lumbee tribe who have concentrated in Upper Fells Point since the 1950s -are holding fish fries and selling food at baseball games to raise $95,000 to match $300,000 in state bonds to renovate and expand the Broadway building.

Grants and other donations will follow, they hope, returning the center to its former role as a community hub.

"My philosophy is, if I sit back and do nothing and it never opens up again, then I really did nothing to help that," said Linda Cox, a Lumbee board member whose mother, Elizabeth Locklear, helped start the center 35 years ago. "If I do something to get it running again, at least I know I tried."

Stanton Lewis, a Lumbee and chairman of the center's board, also considers the restoration a personal quest. The 37-year-old contractor says he's got two jobs: "I've got the Baltimore American Indian Center, and I've got my work."

Founded in 1967 as the American Indian Study Center, it started out as a refuge for those who ventured from their North Carolina homes to work in Baltimore's then-booming industrial sector. Baltimore has about 2,100 Native Americans, according to the 2000 U.S. Census; many are Lumbees.

Lewis grew up with the center. As a middle-schooler, he tutored other Native American children there. As a teen-ager, one of his first jobs was painting a mural on the building. And as an adult in trouble with drugs and alcohol, he sought counseling there.

Being at the center "was the only time I really felt safe and knew who I was, growing up in Baltimore City and being Native American," he said.

The center became a $1 million operation, with the annual powwow its largest fund-raiser.

The financial crisis developed suddenly. Organizers hoped to attract 10,000 people to the 1999 powwow by using the Convention Center downtown, a larger venue than Catonsville Community College, where the event was usually held.

But the center's leaders hadn't counted on the effect of convention center rules, which limited the food sold there. Crowds seeking specialties such as Native American fry bread were disappointed, and attendance fell.

At the same time, government agencies were paying their grants only after the center had paid for the services. Other grants were lost when the center failed to file reports about how the funds were spent. "We were robbing Peter to pay Paul," says treasurer Jovina Chavis.

Now, Keith Colston runs his Tuesday night cultural class at the Virginia S. Baker Recreation Center in Patterson Park. For an hour, about 15 people - from pre-kindergartners to people in their 50s - practice traditional dances and songs.

During the center's heyday, Colston had a van available to take as many as 17 dancers from the class to compete at powwows as far away as Canada and Florida.

Now he can take only a few students, and the group must pay much of its own way. Colston works as a consultant, with a salary cobbled together from a Marion I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation grant and contributions from center board members.

Keith Cox, Linda Cox's 15-year-old son, attends the class. He said he tries to dance at a powwow almost every weekend.

"I'm happy when I dance," he said, noting that he is the only one in his family who does. "It's to keep my culture alive."

But how best to use the center to keep Native American culture alive is a subject of debate.

Greg Cantori, executive director of the Knott Foundation, was one of several foundation leaders consulted by board members about rejuvenating the center. His advice: Limit offerings to programs unique to the community, and refer people elsewhere for other services.

Because of the turmoil at the center in the past few years, the foundation turned down a request for more money to accomplish larger goals.

"[They should] go back to the core, and if they want to grow, slowly grow from there," Cantori said.

But center leaders like Lewis say fostering cultural identity includes offering services to people who might not seek them from another group.

Lewis points to his struggle with drugs and the help he got at the center as an example.

"If I had to go outside my comfort zone, I probably wouldn't have gotten the help that I needed," he said.

The planned renovation of the building would cater to those needs. In addition to updated heating and plumbing, the improvements would include a communal hall for dinners, community functions, and a place for Native American children to go after school.

Fund raising has brought in about $15,000 so far. This year's powwow is scheduled Aug. 23-25 at Catonsville Community College.

State Sen. Perry Sfikas, an East Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bond bill for the center, said he doesn't doubt the center will reach its goal. He is impressed with the new leaders - starting with the way they lobbied for their cause.

"The [Native American] community was blessed to have many wonderful leaders in the '60s, the '70s and into the early '80s," Sfikas said. "Now, there's a wonderful core group that I think has great promise and a ton of potential."

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